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Bare Lives
Part 4 – Repossessions and re-affectations

Have I None—‘I’d Kill You Both Before I Let Anyone Hurt You’—The Ethics of Loss and Dispossession in Contemporary British Dystopian Theatre

« Have I none—‘I’d kill you both before I let anyone hurt you’ ». L’éthique de la perte et de la dépossession dans le théâtre dystopique britannique contemporain
Xuandung June Pham


Cet article analyse deux récentes pièces de théâtre au scénario dystopique, Have I None (2000) d’Edward Bond et Mercury Fur (2005) de Philip Ridley, dans le but de découvrir comment le théâtre dystopique britannique contemporain traite la question de la dépossession d’un point de vue éthique. En imputant à la perte une qualité créative, les deux pièces examinées s’efforcent de donner du pouvoir aux dépossédés et les considèrent comme des agents actifs qui sont capables de générer des possibilités alternatives et de reprendre l’humanité face à l’inhumanité, au lieu d’être des victimes passives. Alors que ce changement de paradigme est particulièrement effectif dans le cas d’une perte de mémoire ou d’histoire, il est moins adéquat quand le problème en considération est la perte de vie et d’humanité à cause de la violence. C’est le moment où la notion d’ « empathic unsettlement » de LaCapra devient une approche plus féconde dans une tentative d’accompagner l’audience dans un processus de réflexion éthique comme elle met un accent important sur l’ouverture plutôt que sur la clôture.

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  • 1 Have I None was first presented by Big Brum on 2 November 2000 at Castle Vale Artsite, Birmingham. (...)

1Looking at the body of dystopian work from the mid-twentieth century to the present, it is safe to claim that loss has been deployed as one of the building blocks of dystopian narrative, from loss of individual identity, memory, to loss of moral values and independent thinking capacity, among others. This ubiquity of loss makes plays set in a dystopian context such as Edward Bond’s Have I None (2000) and Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur (2005) highly valuable to the task of exploring the ethical dimension of dispossession on stage as well as its implication in the real world.1 I will argue that while contemporary British dystopian theatre does strive to portray loss as having the potential of empowering the dispossessed and as a requisite condition for repossession, it also underscores the fact that this creative/generative quality does not in any sense mitigate the negative nature of suffering, that acknowledging the capacity of loss in opening up alternative possibilities should not be equated to embracing and normalising dispossession. In their plays, Bond and Ridley excavate hope from the abyss of hopelessness while simultaneously steering the audience away from unproblematic identification by constantly problematising the decisions of the bare lives they portray. It is my contention that Have I None’s and Mercury Fur’s focus on the issue of loss and dispossession is meant to invoke what Dominick LaCapra terms ‘empathic unsettlement’empathy without identification, which marks a beginning rather than a closure of ethical engagement. The first part of this article adopts a parallel structure in order to compare and contrast the loss of history and memory in the two plays and in its transition, initiates an analysis of the dubious position of Mercury Fur’s characters in their relationship to the Other. The second part continues with demonstrating the uncertainty in interpreting the loss of life through suicide in Have I None, which vacillates between acclaiming the empowering aspect of extreme dispossession and questioning the validity of self-harm as a means of resistance. The third and last part addresses the same problem of ethical indeterminacy when faced with the impulse to kill in the name of love and care, as it returns to the intense violence that characterises the sibling relationship in Mercury Fur. In the end, through an exhibition of the oscillatory motion imbued in Bond’s and Ridley’s representation of loss, I hope to bring into relief the two plays’ openness to interpretation and reflectionthe sort of openness that enables more lasting and responsible engagement with the aftermath of loss and dispossession.

  • 2 In Mercury Fur, Elliot is the only character who is capable of articulating with any fluency, whose (...)

2Have I None is the first of a triology known as the Chair plays, all of which are set in the year 2077. It introduces an amnesiac society in which the authorities has abolished the past and its human relations. The unhappy life of the two main characters, Sara and Jams, further undergoes a severe test when a stranger named Grit turns up at their door claiming to be Sara’s brother and producing a banned picture, supposedly of himself and Sara when they were children. The danger Grit poses is so grave that the couple decides to kill him. But in the end, it is not Grit who drinks the poisoned soup. In comparison, Mercury Fur by Philip Ridley portrays a much bleaker and more violent version of London, where people consume hallucinogenic butterflies, let loose their most reprehensible desires, and bring to life their wildest, most amoral fantasies, including torturing and murdering a child for entertainment. The two brothers, Elliot and Darren, are preparing for one such party, which involves a wealthy banker known as the Party Guest and a ten-year-old boy known as the Party Piece, a meat hook, and a video recorder. It is revealed that the success of this party is crucial to the survival of the brothers and their loved ones, even though we do not know exactly in what way. Soon enough, the situation spins out of hand. Elliot and Darren find themselves in one ethical dilemma after another, in which their humanity is put through the most extreme trials. At their base, the two worlds envisioned in Have I None and Mercury Fur share certain characteristics which categorise them as dystopia. These include, most notably, an authoritative government or a complete absence of any government, and an amnesiac society in which not only historical memory but normal human emotions have also become relics of a distant past. In terms of language, it is easy to discern the infantile simplicity of sentence structures and of vocabulary used by the characters.2 Truncated sentences, repetition, and failure in understanding the meaning of certain words, all of which demonstrate that language itself is endangered. And yet, there is an undeniable poetic quality, verging on beauty, in this impoverished language, just as when Grit describes the mass suicides he witnessed on his way: ‘When they jumped they were like shadows falling into the water’ (Bond 12) or when Elliot and Darren recite their brotherly love mantra (Ridley 15). In like manner, it is precisely because of the omnipresence of loss that an individual is given the closest opportunity to discover him//herself and to relate more intimately to those who have suffered. Judith Butler explains this paradox:

When we lose certain people, or when we are dispossessed from a place, or a community, we may simply feel that we are undergoing something temporary […] But maybe when we undergo what we do, something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are, ties or bonds that compose us. (22)

3The disclosure of a previously hidden aspect of the self through dispossession takes place in Have I None with the appearance of Grit. In Bond’s play, the government’s conscious attempt to abolish, to do away with the past, ironically, reaffirms its existence and opens up the possibilities of retrieving history, not by recognising it the way it really was, but according to Walter Benjamin, by ‘appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger’ (391). This ‘moment of danger’ presents itself in the play when Grit shows up out of the blue with a picture. Grit is the past personified in the present and assumes the status of Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘stranger,’ whose presence is perceived as a threat and invokes fear because it unsettles the existing order of Jams’ and Sara’s world. Bauman summarises the situation in Have I None perfectly:

One cannot knock on a door unless one is outside; and it is the act of knocking on the door which alerts the residents to the fact that one who knocks is indeed outside. ‘Being outside’ casts the stranger in the position of objectivity: his is an outside, detached and autonomous vantage-point from which the insiders (complete with their world-view, including their map of friends and enemies) may be looked upon, scrutinized and censored. The very awareness of such an outside point of view (a point of view epitomized by the stranger’s status) makes the natives feel uncomfortable, insecure in their home ways and truths. (78)

4Grit is clearly an unwelcome, threatening stranger‘a sick ghost with a disease’ (Bond 26)and his picture is viewed as the source of trouble for everyone, as explained by Jams: ‘If it had been destroyed my wife wouldn’t be lostyou wouldn’t be tied in the chairI wouldn’t be chopped. The suffering will end’ (Bond 26). For it is true that Grit’s presence and the picture awaken something profoundly human in Sara, the sort of thing that is better left buried in a society that values mindless conformity above all else. She herself starts to remember about her brother, the night he was ill and how she dragged him to the window so that he could see the outside world. According to this version, her brother was dead that night. Then, who is Grit after all? In his introduction to the Chair plays, Bond writes, ‘Are Sara and Grit siblings? I don’t know because it doesn’t matter. Once the question is asked the play has to go beyond the relationship’ (xli). One is prompt to concur with Bond that it does not matter much whether Grit is Sara’s brother, for the issue at hand pertains not only to the relationship of two particular individuals but also to the relationships of man and history, of man and his fellow human beings. Sara’s act of remembering is a proof that, even in the most hopeless time, there is still hope, not hope in the future, but in the past as it is constructed in ‘a moment of danger.’ The past is repressed, true, but it is this repression that allows it to emerge, to rupture so much more powerful in the present. To quote Walter Benjamin again, ‘History is the subject of a construction whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled full by now-time’ (395). What is seen as loss in this dystopian world is, after all, not completely lost, as the deconstruction process of collective history provides the prerequisite condition for the reconstruction and revitalisation of memory that transpires privately in the present moment.

5Similarly, in Mercury Fur, the appearance of a stranger is accompanied by recovery of lost or suppressed memory, even though this occurs in a more straightforward manner compared to what happens in Have I None. Through his conversation with the newcomer Naz, the damaged Darren recalls what happened to himself and his family.

Darren    I remember… Mum was hurt. She’s been hit with a hammer too […] I put my hand on her chest. I can feel her heart beating. I think, she’s alive. So long as I can feel that heart beating… everything is okay. I’m safe. (Ridley 42)

6In this play, the loss of memory is also employed as a dystopian trope, but it has nothing to do with an authoritative oppression as in the case of Have I None. Instead, amnesia is a side-effect of hallucinogenic butterfly consumption or an upshot of the traumatic experience that befalls the characters in a lawless society. Here, the disparity between two dystopian visions in Have I None and Mercury Fur in terms of governmental intervention becomes evident, which is manifested in different safety contexts: security in one world and precarity in the other. Yet, security is not necessarily welcoming nor precarity necessarily negative. Security in Have I None is contradictory, in the sense that it is used as a pretext for dispossession. In the play people can find peace thanks to resettlement: ‘Everyone with the same walls—same issue furniture—same issue clothes—same issue food’ (Bond 26). But peace at what price? The price of being home, imprisoned, of living a life so void of meaning that many opt for suicide. It turns out that precarity in Mercury Fur is no less paradoxical. On the one hand, it exposes an individual as vulnerable, making him aware of his vulnerability and, as a result, strengthening the fear for his own survival. On the other hand, the awareness of how vulnerable all human beings are also induces a sense of anxiety: one becomes anxious about hurting the Other.

7These two impulses, according to Judith Butler, ‘are at war with each other in order not to be at war’ (137). In her reading of Levinas, Butler pronounces that ‘nonviolence […] does not come from a peaceful place, but rather from a constant tension between the fear of undergoing violence and the fear of inflicting violence’ (137). In Mercury Fur, this fear and anxiety can be said to characterise the relationship between Elliot and the new comer, Naz. Towards the end of the play, when the Party Piece is deemed unusable because he is not conscious enough to the banker’s taste, Elliot has no other choice but to sacrifice Naz, forcing him to be the replacement of the Party Piece. This act of betrayal, however, is rectified when he sees Naz staggering out, covered in blood. The moment Elliot decides to stand up against the Party Guest to defend and rescue Naz marks a crucial moment in the play’s ethical dimension: Elliot, in his inability to kill, comes face to face with the Other and as such, triumphs in the power struggle between the subject and the Other. His case nicely illustrates the following statement of Levinas:

The Other (Autrui) is the sole being I can wish to kill. I can wish. And yet this power is quite the contrary of power. The triumph of this power is its defeat as power. At the very moment when my power to kill realizes itself, the other (autrui) has escaped me […] I have not looked at him in the face, I have not encountered his face […] To be in relation with the other (autrui) face to face is to be unable to kill. (9)

8Unfortunately, victory does not last long, for Elliot’s inability to let Naz die inevitably leads to a confrontation with the Party Guest, which escalates quickly and ends up with Darren shooting him dead to save Elliot. In killing the Party Guest, Darren fails in encountering the Other face to face, a task that Elliot has succeeded just a moment before in his relationship with Naz. The predicament Elliot and Darren suffer from not only problematises the question of measuring success in one’s relation with the other (if such a thing is even conceivable) but also illustrates the limitation of an absolute non-violent position that Levinas seems to advocate. Yet, to defend that not all killings are the same, that some forms of violence are more ethically justifiable than others is to risk falling into a dangerous trap that entails detrimental consequences. Ridley, in situating his characters in an arbitrary ethical position, seems to invite the audience to contemplate the nature of violence rather than simply passing judgment.

9Bond appears to adopt the same strategy in Have I None, with some slight alterations. Like Elliot’s inability to see Naz being tortured and murdered, Sara’s inability to kill Grit is an act of nonviolence that effectively re-establishes human relationships and human emotions. Yet, her decision to drink the poisoned soup is problematic, for if the sole purpose is to save Grit, there is virtually no need to put herself through harm as such. If we understand Sara’s suicide as a gesture of capitulation, then, the validity of the ethics of loss, of the possibility of gain in dispossession that has been mentioned previously should be subject to doubt. When the act of nonviolence toward the Other is turned into an act of violence against oneself, it is only understandable that many come to interpret it as promoting nihilism, or negativism at the very least. There is no arguing that Sara’s decision is infused with pessimism and a painful awareness of her dejected situation, yet, it will be erroneous to jump to conclusiones and claim that her suicide communicates a disempowering message concerning bare lives.

10To better explain the above statement, we shall turn to Agamben for a brief moment. It should be noted that Agamben does not negate completely the potential of bare life, even though he considers the living human body as ‘always already a biopolitical body and bare life, and nothing in it seems to allow us to find solid ground on which to oppose the demands of sovereign power’ (187). One critical example he comes up with in Homo Sacer is ‘the Muslim’ or der Mulselmann. For Agamben, this character is ‘a being from whom humiliation, horror, and fear had so taken away all consciousness and all personality as to make him absolutely apathetic (hence the ironical nickname given to him)’ (185). Nevertheless, having already had the worst done to him, this figure paradoxically embodies resistance to further violence:

  • 3 In Have I None, the unnamed old woman whom Jams encounters in the beginning of the play can be said (...)

We can say that [the Muselmann] moves in absolute indistinction of fact and law, of life and juridical rule, and of nature and politics. Because of this, the guard suddenly seems powerless before him as if struck by the thought that the Muselmann’s behaviorwhich does not register any difference between an order and the cold [that is, between something done to him by human beings and the material world around him]might perhaps be a silent form of resistance. (Agamben 185)3

11While it is true that Agamben gives us the good news that even in the most reduced circumstances, we remain essentially resistant beings, albeit silent resistant beings, it is also undeniable that the option proposed here is particularly grim, for it implies that there is nothing more we can do except prolong that grim existence.

  • 4 Bataille is not the only one who affirms this paradox, as Fredric Jameson also writes, ‘It is only (...)
  • 5 The chair has become a recurring symbol in Bond’s career, which first appears in Saved (1965). In t (...)
  • 6 Agamben writes, ‘The principle of the sacredness of life has become so familiar to us that we seem (...)

12Seen in this context, Sara’s suicide is a proof that she has taken resistance one step further as she is not satisfied with Agamben’s silent form of resistance. There is a paradox at the root of her seemingly defeatist choice, which can be best explained in Bataille’s words: ‘if one perceives the profound absence of escape, the profound absence of goal and meaning, then—but only then—the mind liberated, we approach practically, lucidly, practical problems’ (225).4 It is by acknowledging the truth that an individual has been reduced to the mere material of the biopolitical regime that he/she can regain sovereignty. The intentional loss of life through suicide is meant to reclaim power and control; it is a form of protesting, condemning and challenging the social conditions which have driven people to their last resort. The kind of absurdity existing in Sara’s world is distinct from Camus’s absurdity, which is an intrinsic part of existence. In a world where even furniture is hardly tolerated by authorities while it is the only thing a person can still possess, people like Jams and Sara cling to it with all their power. Billingham interprets the two chairs in Have I None as symbol of a ‘fetishised commoditisation,’ as ‘tangible, material indicators and symptoms of a world in which, robbed of their past and the relative coherence that provided for their identities and lives, spontaneous mass suicides are happening in the world outside’ (113).5 While such an interpretation certainly makes sense, the couple’s obsession with their chairs can also be conflated with them being obsessed with the notion of their own place in the world. Unlike Jams, who is able to feel satisfied with this false comfort, Sara sees through the real meaninglessness of their situation. The meaninglessness imposed on our characters is artificial, consciously manipulated and reinforced through ideology, whose ultimate goal is to strip people off all their humanness, to the extent that their lives are not even theirs. To quote Edward Bond, ‘Ideology corrupts the humanness it represses so that it cannot threaten its existence […] Ideology depends on suffering and degradation. It sustains itself by taking over our passions and desires, our aspiration for the transcendental, and legitimates itself by turning them into suffering’ (xl). In such a situation, the loss of one’s life through suicide can be understood as the extreme and sole measure to recover one’s possession of one’s own life. When it is no longer possible to imagine that Sisyphus is happy, one’s suicide becomes a manifestation of defiance, an act of rebellion: even the barest of lives possesses the potential, the possibility of emancipation.6 Bond himself reveals:

By committing suicide, the people in the play are acting like those people in prison who deliberately wound themselves—as if their body was the prison and they were destroying it to get out… They only manage to hurt themselves, of course. In the play they commit suicide not because they are fed up with life but because they want to live. But they are not allowed to live as they want and they should. They enact the reality of their social situation. One character saw people jumping off a bridge in a river and he says their coats blow up like big bubbles in the water inflated with their last breath. This is an image of humanness that can’t be destroyed in that way—as if, in the end air will invent lung so it can be breathed. (quoted in Tuaillon 161)

13Sara’s suicide can be said to be an example of Bataille’s subversive sovereignty, which is ‘the power “invoked” by the tragedy of self-loss, powerlessness and abjection, […] the revolutionariness of anguish’ (Goldhammer 21). Once again, we are reminded of the creative, generative quality of loss, even in its most extreme form—loss of life.

  • 7 Camus Albert, ‘the individual is not, self alone, the embodiment of the values he wishes to defend. (...)

14After consuming the poisoned soup, Sara asks Grit to carry her out to the street, despite Jams’ protestation that people may see her. Sara has no such fear: she wants to see the outside world and wants to be seen. Here, Sara’s active demand for visibility, even visibility in death, effectively brings her to the position of power and control. At this precise moment, Sara has become the epitome of bare life in two senses: she is baring her life to the eyes of the public, a life that has been reduced to a nonhuman status, so bare that only in death can she regain her humanity. Not only her humanity but also humanity as a whole, if we agree with Albert Camus and his famous ‘I rebel, therefore we exist’ (20). Sara’s acceptance of death as the means and the consequence of her rebellion demonstrates that she is ‘willing to sacrifice [her]self for the sake of a common good which [she] considers more important than [her] own identity’ (Camus 13), that she ‘is acting in the name of certain values which are still indeterminate but which [she] feels are common to [herself] and to all men’ (Camus 14).7 Sara sacrifices herself in order to avoid being sacrificed in the name of ideology, which is fundamentally a political act that denounces ideology and politics. For according to Žižek, the political and politics are not one and the same. ‘Politics’ is to be understood as ‘separate social complex, positively determined subsystem of social relations in interaction with other sub-systems (economy, forms of culture…),’ while ‘the Political (le Politique)’ refers to ‘the moment of openness, of undecidability, when the very structuring principle of society, the fundamental form of the social pact, is called into question—in short, the moment of global crisis overcome by the act of founding ‘new harmony” (Žižek 8). In other words, Sara’s suicide, in calling into question the arrangement of her totalitarian society, disrupts the existing order and manages to be political without being subject to politics.

15However, just as one cannot help but question Elliot’s and Darren’s ethical position when the former is moved to protect Naz only for the latter to end up killing the Party Guest, faced with Sara’s suicide, the audience find themselves in an uncomfortable, unsettling situation in which they are constantly required to reconsider and revise their opinions. As powerful a political statement as it is, Sara’s suicide remains controversial, especially when its implication in the real world is brought to prominence. The controversy arises from interrogating not only the ethical validity of accepting self-harming behaviour as a means of protest when all other means have been exhausted, but also the extent to which suicide is capable of producing palpable ethical and political impact, if any. Bond makes sure to create a tension that helps restrain the audience from approaching the issue with a celebratory attitude. He does it through his description of Jams’ reaction after Sara has drunk the poisoned soup and asked Grit to carry her out to the street.

Jams    Keep her upright! You can’t trust him to do(Yells.) Don’t let her stagger! O God get her round the corner before anyone! (Whines.) They’re opening their doors! (Shuts the door.) I cant look!
He goes to the table. Sits. Drags the soup bowl towards him. Eats.
Chopped! That Johannson’ll get my seat in the truck! Twisted little bed-wetter! (Sobs.) She brings crates into the housethen as if that’s not enough(Shakes salt on the soup.)she kills herself (Eats. Splutters. Spits.) O God what if she switched them round! … (Collapses across the table. Weeps. Bangs the table with his fist.) It’s her revenge because I sat in her chair!
He gets up. Still howling he goes to the door, opens it and shouts into the street.
Leant! Leant – you bitch!
Howling, he staggers towards the kitchen. There is a knock at the door. He turns and shouts to it.
Jams    Bugger off!
He goes off to the kitchen howling. (Bond 35-6)

16Here, it is evident that Sara’s suicide does have some impact on Jams, yet, it is far from being the inspiring, revelatory impact that one expects from such a desperate and powerful political statement. Jams is seen crying and howling, but his tears probably do not have anything to do with grieving the loss of a loved one or being moved by her sacrifice. What Sara’s action effectuates in her partner is better characterised as fear and angerfear for his own life, his own career (‘That Johannson’ll get my seat in the truck!’), anger with what he mistook as her revenge because he sat in her chair.

17Until the very end, Jams believes that Sara made her decision based on her obsession with a piece of furniture. It is not inconceivable that deep down inside, he can sense her true motive; nevertheless, such a radical idea is too much for his rational mind to come to terms with, so he instead convinces himself to believe in a much simpler, immediate explanation for her ‘insanity.’ This interpretation, which places the emphasis on Jams’ denial attitude, seems to hold the ground, since the last phrase he utters after hearing a knock at the door is ‘Bugger off!’—chasing away and ignoring the spectral, unknown figure outside his comfort zone. Either way, it is unlikely that Sara’s suicide will inspire Jams to perform any subversive act, nor will it facilitate the repossession of his humanity, which has been lost to ideology and the totalitarian authority he submits to. The question of whether Sara’s death has any palpable impact on those who directly witness it is, therefore, left unanswered. The prospect of an answer becomes even more ambiguous and far-fetched if we move on to measure its impact on secondary witness, namely the audience.

18In a different fashion but with similar intention, Ridley also aims for an open ending in Mercury Fur. In the final scene, as the sound of distant bombing starts, Elliot is seen holding a gun, contemplating on shooting his brother and himself, while Darren implores him to put the gun away.

Elliot takes gun from pocket and stares at it.
Darren No, Ell! Put the gun away. We’ve got to get out!
Elliot continues to stare at gun.
Darren (Shouting above noise.) I love you so much – Say it, Ell!
The fire gets louder and brighter.
The sound of bombing gets louder.
Say it, Ell.
The fire gets louder and brighter.
The sound of bombing gets louder.
Darren can barely be heard.
Say it!
The fire gets louder and –
Say it!
Blackout. (Ridley 126-7)

19It is unknown whether Elliot will go along to fulfill his promise of love, the promise he and Darren make to each other that we hear earlier in the play.

Elliot        I love you so much I could chase you and chase you.
Darren    I love you so much I could grab you and grab you.
Elliot        I love you so much I could grab you harder and harder.
Darren    I love you so much I could make you scream and scream.
Elliot        I love you so much I could kick you and punch you.
Darren    I love you so much I could punch you and kick you.
Elliot        I love you so much I could make you bleed and bleed.
Darren    I love you so much I could kill you and kill you.
Elliot        I love you so much I could burst into flames.
Darren    I love you so much I could burst into flames.
Elliot and Darren embrace. (Ridley 15)

20The love mantra characterised by escalating physical violence, despite its simplistic language and repetitive structure, is remarkably poetic. Yet, the fact that love is associated with such violent acts (kicking, punching, killing, etc…), even just in the sense of possibility and unwillingness (‘could’ instead of ‘can’), seems to completely dismantle the play’s ethics of care and responsibility invested in nonviolence, in the inability to kill that is brought into relief through the Elliot-Naz relationship. Such a poetic rendering of violence explains why when Mercury Fur was first presented in 2005, it greatly divided critics and the audience alike, a kind of reception that reminds us of the impact Sarah Kane’s Blasted produced previously in 1995. Charles Spencer, in his review of Mercury Fur for the Telegraph, heavily criticises the play’s matter-of-factness in depicting sadistic excesses as ‘cheap thrills’ and the play itself as the work of a writer ‘turned on by his own sick fantasies.’ One can try to defend Ridley by arguing that in a dystopian world where violence has become the norm, it is certainly impossible for the characters to be immune to violent thoughts and behaviour or for love to remain gentle and nurturing.

  • 8 This can be seen as a direct reference to Bataille’s subversive sovereignty, which is an impulse to (...)
  • 9 In The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, Lyotard poses two important questions: ‘what if human beings, (...)

21Nevertheless, listening to the claim of brotherly love between Elliot and Darren, the audience cannot help but wonder whether Ridley is, in fact, advocating for violence. At the very least, it seems like the playwright proposes that not all violence or killing is the same. It is true that submitting to the impulse to kill, at first, proclaims a moral defeat. But being determined to kill a person one loves because one can see with certainty that death is inevitable and that prolonging life would only mean perpetuating suffering, that impulse to kill is founded on a very different motive. There is a moment in the play when Elliot says, ‘if things got so bad I was afraid people might hurt you… I’d kill you both before I let anyone hurt you. I’d shoot you while you slept or something. It’s like a… like a comfort to think of it. The power’s still in our hands, Lol. Don’t you see? We can decide… not to carry on. We can decide to… disappear’ (Ridley 66). Here, we reencounter an individual’s aspiration for autonomy through the very loss of life, of one’s own life in Sara’s case, and of the life of one’s family in Elliot’s case.8 Perhaps it is also appropriate to claim that Eliot’s commitment to killing the people he loves illustrates Lyotard’s Inhuman, not the dehumanising effect of technology, but the potentially positive forces that are repressed or excluded by a normative humanistic ideal.9 Understood this way, in subjecting himself to the potential loss of his loved ones, to the loss of his own humanity (conventionally defined humanity, that is), paradoxically Elliot has revived the ethics of care and responsibility. It is no doubt a very contradictory way to define care and responsibility, but that is to be expected in such extreme circumstances, in which norms and exceptions are relentlessly challenged and redefined. In the very reality of loss and precarity, Sara and Elliot manage to re-establish human relationships through their care for the Other and manage to reclaim humanness in the face of adversity. They are bare lives with agency. To borrow the words of Edward Bond, ‘If to be human means to know your world and your situation in it absolutely, then they will be more human than we are. They will live in sullen brilliance and in pain and be without our illusions and pretences’ (xxi). Even though it is absurd and groundless to claim that bare life is desirable, there are reasons to believe that there is a creative, constructive, generative aspect inherent in the condition.

  • 10 LaCapra portends the danger of unproblematic identification, ‘If we who have not been severely trau (...)

22This line of reasoning, once again, should be placed under scrutiny, for it essentially establishes ethical justification for some forms of violence and killing because they are ‘different’ from other unethical forms of violence and killing—the dangerous trap that has been mentioned earlier in the article. It is probably the reason why Ridley decides to leave the ending unresolved, so that his position remains ambivalent enough. This brings me to my conclusion that both Bond and Ridley, in their respective plays, fall back on the same strategy of destabilising the ethical ground of their characters for maximum engagement. They manage to impute to loss a positive quality that empowers the dispossessed through their very dispossession, which is particularly true in the case of loss of history and memory. At the same time, the two playwrights prevent the audience from establishing complete, unproblematic empathy with these bare lives, as he is constantly pushed to reexamine the ethical and political implications of the characters’ decisions.10 The primary goal in presenting a dystopian vision, as such, is to situate the audience in a process of defamiliarisation, not through shocking effects (even though such effects do feature in dystopian theatre, if not visually then verbally), but primarily through uncertainty and indeterminacy that are actuated by the oscillatory motion inherent in the interpretation of loss and dispossession.

23In the end, what is emerges from the two plays is not complete empathy or identification but ‘empathic unsettlement,’ to borrow the term from Dominick LaCapra. The significance of ‘empathic unsettlement,’ according to LaCapra, lies in its ability to ‘[pose] a barrier to closure in discourse and [place] in jeopardy harmonizing or spiritually uplifting accounts of extreme events from which we attempt to derive reassurance or a benefit (for example, unearned confidence about the ability of the human spirit to endure any adversity with dignity and nobility)’ (41). This is the objective Bond and Ridley are after in articulating quite confusing messages that make it impossible for the audience to acquire any reassurance or closure. One moment, Elliot is granted triumph in the encounter with the Other in his relationship with Naz; the next moment, Darren is forced to face an immediate failure when he shoots the Party Guest. One moment, we gain hope in Sara’s inability to kill Grit; the next moment, we are left in distress with her suicide. One moment, we get the impression that suicide is a powerful and inspiring political statement and an ultimate act of resistance; the next moment, we are bound to question its ability to have any meaningful impact on the witness. One moment, the impulse to kill someone one loves is portrayed as a potentially positive force that transcends normative humanistic ideals; the next moment, this interpretation is subject to ethical inquiry itself. In their dealing with the issue of loss and dispossession in the most strenuous circumstances, Have I None and Mercury Fur carry the audience through a rollercoaster ride not only in terms of emotional fluctuation but also in terms of ethical reflection. There is no illusion of identification since we are reminded at every step along the way of our status as secondary witness—a kind of distanciation that is very much needed to keep us from undergoing surrogate victimhood. Such is perhaps the more ethical approach that contemporary British dystopian theatre has adopted, one that helps us engage in a more lasting and responsible manner with the aftermath of loss and dispossession.

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Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.

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Lyotard, Jean-François, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby, Cambridge: Polity, 1991.

Ridley, Philip, Mercury Fur, London: Methuen, 2005.

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ŽiŽek, Slavoj, ‘Why Should a Dialectician Learn to Count to Four?’ Radical Philosophy 58 (1991): 3–9.

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1 Have I None was first presented by Big Brum on 2 November 2000 at Castle Vale Artsite, Birmingham. Mercury Fur was first performed at the Drum Theatre Plymouth on 10 February 2005.

2 In Mercury Fur, Elliot is the only character who is capable of articulating with any fluency, whose vocabulary and knowledge are most extensive. For this reason, he is seen by other characters as quite eccentric.

3 In Have I None, the unnamed old woman whom Jams encounters in the beginning of the play can be said to be a Muselmann figure. This woman is carrying a picture in the ruins when Jams and his colleagues are on patrol and she is arrested after having managed to hang the picture on the wall. She is probably the prisoner that features in another play of the triology, Chair (2000).

4 Bataille is not the only one who affirms this paradox, as Fredric Jameson also writes, ‘It is only when people come to realize that there is no alternative that they react against it, at least in their imaginations, and try to think of alternatives… [affording] a process where the imagination begins to question itself, to move back and forth among the possibilities’ (quoted in Glenn).

5 The chair has become a recurring symbol in Bond’s career, which first appears in Saved (1965). In the final scene of this play, the protagonist, Len, is seen methodically repairing a broken chair, which is often interpreted as an embodiment of provisional optimism (Billingham 113). The chair is often employed by Bond to create a Theatre Event (TE), which uses an incident in an entirely different way to what the audience might expect.

6 Agamben writes, ‘The principle of the sacredness of life has become so familiar to us that we seem to forget that classical Greece, to which we owe most of our ethic-political concepts, not only ignored this principle but did not even possess a term to express the complex semantic sphere that we indicate with the single term ‘life.’ Decisive as it is for the origin of Western politics, the opposition between zoe and bios, between zen and eu zen (that is, between life in general and the qualified way of life proper to men), contains nothing to make one assign a privilege or a sacredness to life as such. Homeric Greek does not even know a term to designate the living body. The term soma, which appears in later epochs as a good equivalent to our term ‘life,’ originally only meant ‘corpse,’ almost as if life itself, which for the Greeks was broken down into a plurality of forms and elements, appeared only as a unity after death’ (66). Accordingly, death open up the possibility of unity that defines the sacredness of living.

7 Camus Albert, ‘the individual is not, self alone, the embodiment of the values he wishes to defend. It needs all humanity, at least, to comprise them. When he rebels, a man identifies himself with other men and so surpasses himself, and from this point of view human solidarity is metaphysical’ (15).

8 This can be seen as a direct reference to Bataille’s subversive sovereignty, which is an impulse to give, even to give violence.

9 In The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, Lyotard poses two important questions: ‘what if human beings, in humanism’s sense, were in the process of, constrained into, becoming inhuman (that’s the first part)? And (the second part), what if what is ’proper’ to humankind were to be inhabited by the inhuman?’ (2). As a result, he emphasises the need to distinct between two kinds of inhuman, ‘the inhumanity of the system which is currently being consolidated under the name of development (among others) must not be confused with the infinitely secret one of which the soul is hostage’ (Lyotard 2).

10 LaCapra portends the danger of unproblematic identification, ‘If we who have not been severely traumatized by experiences involving massive losses go to the extreme of identifying (however spectrally or theoretically) with the victim and survivor, our horizon may unjustifiably become that of the survivor, if not the victim, at least as we imagine her or him to be. In other words we may come to feel that it is enough if we simply survive and, at most, bear witness. Other possibilities may seem precluded or be situated in an ever receding, vague, or vacuous future. We may even undergo surrogate victimage—something that may at times be unavoidable but, in terms of ethical, social and civic responsibility, is open to question, particularly in its effects in the public sphere. In any case, our sense of responsibility becomes severely constricted, especially in social and political terms. We may even blind ourselves to ways our lives are in fact privileged. Hence we may opt out of certain responsibilities because, through more or less projective identification, we seek only to attain a testimonial voice that bespeaks, writes, or cries out unspeakable suffering and loss’ (LaCapra 211). In short, an attempt to identify with the victims of traumatic events poses the threat of becoming unethical as it may lead to the illusion of having fulfilled one’s responsibility and eventually eliminate the prospect of further engagement through practical action.

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Xuandung June Pham, « Have I None—‘I’d Kill You Both Before I Let Anyone Hurt You’—The Ethics of Loss and Dispossession in Contemporary British Dystopian Theatre »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 53 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2017, consulté le 20 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Xuandung June Pham

Xuandung June Pham is a second-year PhD student at Paris­Sorbonne University and a member of research groups VALE (Voix Anglophones : Littérature et Esthétique) and PRITEPS (Programme de recherches interdisciplinaires sur le théâtre et les pratiques scéniques). She is working on her thesis in contemporary British dystopian theatre, with an emphasis on the Lacanian Real. Her research interests also include the poetics and ethics of failure in performance, the representation of trauma and violence, as well as the relationship between theatre and ecology.

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